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Cuba's Fidel Castro retires after 49 years in power

HAVANA (Reuters) - Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the communist country, retiring as president 49 years after he seized power in a revolution and became a central figure of the Cold War.

Cuba's President Fidel Castro gestures during a tour of Paris in this March 15, 1995 file photo. Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the communist country, retiring as president 49 years after he seized power in a revolution and became a central figure of the Cold War. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files

Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public since undergoing stomach surgery almost 19 months ago, said he would not seek a new term as president or leader of Cuba’s armed forces when the National Assembly meets on Sunday.

“To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament ... I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept -- I repeat not aspire to or accept -- the positions of president of the Council of State and commander-in-chief,” Castro said in a statement published in the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who has tightened a decades-old economic embargo against Castro’s government, said he hoped Castro’s retirement would mark a new era in Cuba.

“I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition,” Bush said in Rwanda during a tour to Africa. “Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free and I mean fair.”

Cuba’s National Assembly, a rubber-stamp legislature, is expected to nominate Castro’s brother and designated successor Raul Castro as president. The 76-year-old defense minister has been running the country since emergency intestinal surgery forced his brother to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

Raul Castro has raised hopes of economic reforms but he is unlikely to make bold political changes to the one-party state. Fidel Castro will remain influential as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

“This is a crucial moment. Cuba wants change, the people want change,” said Oswaldo Paya, Cuba’s best-known dissident. He said a succession headed by Raul Castro would not satisfy Cubans and called for an end to censorship.

Cubans on the empty streets of Havana were not surprised by Castro’s retirement, first announced on Granma’s Web site in the middle of the night.

“Everyone knew for a while that he would not come back. The people got used to his absence,” said Roberto, a self-employed Cuban who did not want to be fully named.

“I don’t know what to say. I just want to leave. This system cannot continue,” said Alexis, a garbage collector.

In a deserted Revolution Square, the site of many hours-long speeches by Castro to massive crowds, a lone soldier stood guard at government headquarters. The city was calm.

CHARISMATIC REVOLUTIONARY

The charismatic Castro led the bearded and cigar-chomping guerrillas who swept down from the mountains of eastern Cuba to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

He then turned Cuba into a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and became the world’s longest-serving head of state, barring monarchs.

Castro survived a CIA-backed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, as well as assassination attempts, the continuing U.S. trade embargo, and an economic crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of Soviet bloc communism.

He played a key role in taking the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 when he allowed Moscow to put ballistic missiles in Cuba, leading to a 13-day stand-off between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Famous for his long speeches delivered in his green military fatigues, Castro is admired in the Third World for standing up to the United States but considered by his opponents a tyrant who suppressed freedom.

At home, supporters point to Cuba’s advances in health and education for all its citizens. But critics, led by the United States and the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who left to live abroad, say he turned the Caribbean island into a police state and that his policies wrecked the economy.

Castro came close to death in 2006 but Cuba’s leadership showed no sign of collapse during his health crisis.

“Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process,” Castro said in Tuesday’s statement.

He has been seen only in pictures and video film, looking gaunt and frail, since he handed over power provisionally to his brother. His health improved enough a year ago to allow him to receive visits from foreign allies and write reams of articles published by Cuba’s state press.

“This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the heading of ‘Reflections by comrade Fidel.’ It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful,” Castro said in Tuesday’s message.

Raul Castro has raised expectations of economic reforms to improve the daily lot of Cubans since standing in for his brother, but he has yet to deliver.

“It was logical for Fidel to quit because he has been saying that he is not well,” said a musician leaving a cabaret in the early hours of Tuesday. “But nothing will change until the government makes economic reforms that Cuba needs.”

Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Deborah Charles in Rwanda and Michael Christie in Miami

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